January 24, 1996

Column: Street Art -- Free Speech or Just Stuff?


NEW YORK -- Alex Salonov eked out a living in Moscow selling his deep-hued cityscapes -- where else -- on bustling streets and in parks.

"No problem," he said.

When he moved to New York two years ago, he tried to do the same thing, balancing his paintings on building ledges or leaning them on stoops in Soho.


City laws require a peddler's license for sellers of everything from T-shirts to toys. Licenses are limited to about 800, and the waiting list can drag on for years. Military veterans can get one for the asking. In the interest of free speech, no license is needed to sell books, magazines or even baseball cards.

But art, it turns out, isn't necessarily considered protected speech, and unlicensed painters like Salonov risk losing their work and being arrested.

"Last time, I think America a free country," said Salonov, who once abandoned his paintings when he saw the police coming down the block. "I don't understand America. Where is the place for art?"

On appeal in federal court this week.

A group of street artists have been seeking an injunction against the city's vending laws as they apply to artists, saying the laws unfairly limit freedom of expression.

A lower court ruled in October that the city was justified in regulating commerce in the interest of public safety and uncluttered streets.

The vendors have been joined by such high-profile art types as Claes Oldenberg, Chuck Close and the Whitney Museum, who have signed onto a supporting brief.

The artists were especially riled by part of the ruling that said their "apolitical" and "decorative" work wasn't close to the kind of speech protected by the Constitution.

One wonders if Jefferson really intended that dog-eared copies of "Leg Show" merited greater protection than one of Salonov's Brooklyn Bridge scenes. Besides, there are more than a few living rooms where bookshelves bulge with tomes that have never been read, but sure look nice.

"The First Amendment nowhere indicates that the expression has to be profound, brilliant or meaningful," said Robert Lederman, an artist and vocal advocate for street sales. "Once you leave it to the government to determine which expression is worthwhile, they'll inevitably say yours isn't."

Lederman leads a street artists' advocacy group, and he chafes at the arrests of some 200 of his colleagues over the years, sometimes with their work destroyed, even though the Manhattan district attorney has declined to prosecute "in the interest of justice."

And Lederman rails against neighborhood business groups that he accuses of remaking the city into a sanitized suburban strip mall.

But before you whip out the checkbook and dash off something with lots of zeros to the Civil Liberties Union, consider this: if artwork is protected, then what about handmade earrings or painted clothing? That's what Catherine Ross ran up against when she tried to persuade a T-shirt vendor to move away from her building on West Broadway.

"He said, 'This is art,"' she said.

Ms. Ross belongs to the Soho Alliance, a neighborhood group battling the influx of street artists. Her sidewalks are congested enough on weekends without the street sellers. She faults their methods, which include plastering sarcastic fliers on buildings.

She insists she's sympathetic to their plight, but who is looking out for her?

"Everybody enjoys art and would like to make it available to everyone." she said. "But what about when people who do this take away from the rights of individuals who live there, using their buildings as props for their work?"

The alliance has worked with City Councilwoman Kathryn Freed to offer alternative places for the street artists. But the artists said they felt they were being ghettoized.

Ms. Freed thinks Lederman just wants a free ride.

"He believes he has an absolute right to do what he wants to do," she said. "In a place like Soho, we have so much foot traffic there's no room. There are higher concerns than Lederman's right to sell his art."

But the artists who endorsed the appeal think the higher concern is free expression, not free trade. And Lederman says that preserving urban street life is a laudable goal, crowds and all.

He vows to keep selling on the street, even though the confiscation of his work in the course of his eleven arrests forced him to sell mostly prints, not originals.

Business isn't great, but his wife's interest in photography has benefited unexpectedly.

"It has actually made a career for her specializing in pictures of people being arrested," he said. "She has a great portfolio."

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